The Chinese manufacturer Jay’s Audio – note the possessive apostrophe – is the personal project of Jay Ho, who also goes by the alternative first name of Jacky. Perhaps his actual given name just doesn’t translate that well into English. There’s no equivocation, though, about Mr Ho’s engineering credentials. His 2021 Red Book CD transport, the CDT2-MK3, remains a benchmark of value. At a UK tax-paid price of around £2,400, it has impressed reviewers and buyers the world over with sonic abilities and a build quality that are judged by many to be the equal or better of transports at twice the price and more.
The CDT2-MK3 has now been joined in the Jay’s Audio range by a flagship transport, the CDT3-Mk3. The new transport is not quite a total cost-no-object assault on the summit of Red Book transcription. Such a device might be expected to feature a proprietary drive mechanism, whereas Mr Ho’s new transport uses an OEM unit, albeit one that is particularly well-regarded by many high-end audio manufacturers.
What Mr Ho has done is allow himself much more latitude in respect of component and manufacturing costs with the new transport. This results in a retail price around twice the cost of the CDT2. As the images that accompany this review bear witness, Mr Ho has exercised some serious engineering chops in order to create his statement player. Fully clothed, the CDT3-Mk3 looks almost identical to the CDT2-MK3; just a little taller but with the same blocky aesthetic and silky-smooth sliding shutter that allows CDs to be loaded from above. Pick it up though and the 22kg weight – the CDT2-MK3 is 15 kg – heralds hidden additions.
The CDT2-MK3 has two transformers and a single circuit board containing regulated power supplies, the output buffer circuitry and an oven controlled crystal clock. The ‘3 is an entirely different creature. Internally it is two-storey and with no less than seven separate circuit boards. Inside the machined aluminium case, a massive aluminium sub-chassis supports a highly specified AC power supply incorporating five transformers and apparently some three times the capacitance used in the CDT2-MK3; more than 150,000 uF.
The top surface of the sub-chassis is CNC machined with six compartments that house separate clock and output boards and three separate DC regulated power supply boards, one each for the clock and output boards, the third for the Philips CD-Pro2/LF drive. The drive itself is mounted on a further machined aluminium slab – a sub, sub-chassis if you will – which has an elastomer-type material on its base to provide a degree of mechanical de-coupling from the primary sub-chassis.
Three large diameter aluminium pillars extend from the underside of the sub-chassis and terminate flush with holes in the external chassis base-plate. To the ends of the pillars are bolted SuperSpikes sourced from Norwegian company Soundcare. Mr Ho has sought to directly mechanically de-couple the sub-chassis and its payload of potentially sensitive electronics from vibration in the supporting surface. The external casework bolts to the sub-chassis. He describes this rather unusual arrangement as semi-floating.
The drive starts out as a standard Philips production piece but is heavily modified by Jay’s Audio. The CD-Pro2 has been a favourite of a number of high-end transport designers for some years, but it is not perfect. The spindle and laser sled motors, potential sources of noise and vibration, are close to the laser read-head, although it has to be said that such a co-location arrangement is pretty common among drive designs. The drive’s standard servo circuit has also been criticised by some for imposing rather coarse and over-active speed regulation, but the Pro2 is not unique in this respect either.
The Jay’s modifications are thoughtful and knowing. The machined aluminium CD platter/spindle that replaces the standard plastic Philips assembly probably adds a degree of flywheel effect without the penalty of too much extra load on the spindle motor bearings. The proprietary Jay’s servo board is slung underneath the drive and therefore hidden from view. It is a total re-design of the original Philips circuit, simpler in some respects, with superior quality components, better DC regulation and, as listening tests confirmed, a more analogue flow, no doubt the result of the more refined speed regulation.
Elsewhere in the transport the quality of the discrete components is notable, with encapsulated transformers from Talema, capacitors from Evox, Mundorf, Nichicon, Nippon Chemi-Con and Vishay, and a 10MHz SC-Cut oven controlled rubidium clock whose frequency stability is claimed to be four times better than that achieved by the clock in the CDT2-MK3. Jay’s Audio says a proprietary PLL circuit results in residual jitter of less than 1 ps.
Around the back of the chassis are a switched IEC mains socket, plus S/PDIF, BNC, AES/EBU, and I2S via HDMI and RJ45 sockets. A toggle switch allows upsampling to 176.4kHz to be engaged, while two further BNC sockets allow the CDT3-Mk3 to be slaved to an external 10MHz clock, or to act as a 10MHz master-clock itself. A chunky machined aluminium remote control rounds the package off.
Mr Ho’s almost obsessive-compulsive approach to the design of the AC and DC stages of power supply in the CDT3-Mk3 stems from his determination to achieve the blackest of sonic backgrounds and the greatest possible dynamic range. His calculation is evidently that the noise mitigation measures applied throughout his complex design, and his proprietary drive servo circuit, enable the new transport to achieve an overall sonic performance right up there with the best alternatives, including belt-drive transports.
Pressed to set expectations, Jay’s Audio predicted that the out-of-the-box review sample CDT3-Mk3 would take between 500 and 700 hours to settle. The guidance proved to be accurate. Connected to my Denafrips Terminator Plus DAC via a Tubulus 12S/HDMI cable, for the first hour or so the sample sounded promising, but sonic performance went downhill from here, the transport sounding dynamically unexpressive, weak in the lower registers and rolled off at the high end. It was left running on repeat, 24 hours a day. At around the 350 hour-mark things began to improve and by 450 hours the transport began to sound more like the flagship design Mr Ho wants us to regard it as.
First listening impressions zeroed in on jitter – or rather the lack of it. It’s one of those negative influences on sound quality that few people are attuned to recognise. Jitter robs music of many of its treasures. Most of us – me included – might simply have a vague sense that ‘something is not quite right’; a feeling that the low end is not fully extended and resolved; that there’s an edginess to female voices and the higher registers of piano. It’s only when confronted with a transport like the CDT3-Mk3, whose jitter is so low that it cannot be measured by contemporary test kit, that the absence of the unwelcome impacts becomes easily recognisable.
Mr Ho’s use of that high-accuracy rubidium clock, connected to the adjacent output board via a solid silver BNC cable, is therefore undoubtedly one reason why the new transport sounds so natural and extended. We hear things more as they should be, free of glare, tonally richer. Music replay has an ease and flow, while at the same time spatial and musical detail retrieval is of a higher order.
It is tempting to label Mr Ho’s new transport a time machine because – and other really good components do a similar thing – in a sense time does seem to slow down; there is more space between notes, we hear further into the music, able to savour each event and appreciate it for its individual place in a linear continuum of happenings, rather than hearing the music as an indistinct homogenised blur. More detail can be heard, and timing too; in this context whether a musician chooses to play a note behind, on or in front of the beat.
As the new transport continued its burn-in it developed a low-end that was at first sonorous and rather bloated, but became progressively tighter, with a strong degree of tonal density and texture. Voices had been unexceptional, indeed rather thin during the first 350 hours or so, but they too began to fill out and assume quite startling you-are-there levels of dynamic power and richness.
That huge 150,000uF of capacitance could, in the hands of a careless design engineer, result in hideous microphony, and transients that sound as if they are wading through treacle, but the CDT3-Mk3 dodges both these bullets. This transport exhibits subjectively exceptionally low levels of intermodulation and electronic noise. The AC and DC elements of the power supply clearly feed the drive, clock and buffer boards with finely polished and suitably fleet-of-foot reserves of juice.
Proponents of belt drive argue with justification that it allows the noisy motors to be kept away from the sensitive read-head, thus lowering the overall noise floor. Mr Ho’s flagship transport shows that, suitably modified, the direct-drive Pro2 is capable of delivering very high quality results. In fact I will stick my neck out here and observe that the low overall noise, coupled to that deep capacitive well of clean electrical power, imbue the new transport with a level of dynamic expression and detail resolution that is unequivocally the best available at its price point and some considerable amount of money beyond. If a recording makes the most of the Red Book standard’s dynamic range, then expect the CDT3-Mk3 to deliver it to full and dramatic effect, with gut-pounding slam and speed and eye-widening levels of detail.
Once it had burned in, the CDT3-Mk3 was also able to render spatial cues in depth, width and scale to a standard that listeners found simply mesmerising. The low level of electrical noise is partly responsible for this, but the detailed spatial performance also bears witness to a very fine degree of phase accuracy, courtesy in part to the extremely low jitter.
Playing a wide selection of recordings, from plainchant and opera, through symphonic, be-bop, fusion jazz and classic ‘70s and ‘80s rock, I frequently heard new musical, timing and spatial information; subtle cues that other transports had buried below the noise level but the CDT3-Mk3 faithfully transcribed. In one example – shamefully I forget the track – I heard the sound of distant bells and spent a frustrating couple of minutes hunting high and low in the house for my mobile phone, assuming the sounds to be a text alert. When it was pointed out – a little too tartly I thought – that the mobile was still in the car outside the house, I replayed the track and there were the bells again – on the recording.
A Jay’s Audio CDT2-MK3, bought-and-paid-for I must add, has been in my review system for over a year. It has re-kindled my own enthusiasm for the silver disc, causing me to scour the second hand CD market as well as buying new on-line, growing my collection by around 200 CDs in just the last 12 months, sometimes at the cost of as little as £3 or less per recording. The CDT3-MK3 is better than the ‘2 in every respect. At twice the cost, it is more transparent, detailed, fluid, dynamically expressive and analogue-sounding than its less costly sibling.
Designers that have gone against prevailing wisdom and claimed that the Red Book CD has, in a sonic sense, still untapped potential have been laughed at. Don’t they know the future is hi-res? Jay’s flagship transport proves that these brave folk were correct. Fed with good quality recorded material, plain old Red Book CD gets within a gnat’s whisker of the kind of sonic results that we might associate with very much higher resolution playback. The audio quality was there all along. We just could not hear it.